Hángzhōu’s history goes back to the start of the Qin dynasty (221 BC). When Marco Polo passed through the city in the 13th century he described it as one of the most splendid in the world. Although Hángzhōu prospered greatly after it was linked with the Grand Canal in AD 610, it really came into its own after the Song dynasty was overthrown by the invading Jurchen, predecessors of the Manchus.
The Song capital of Kāifēng, along with the emperor and the leaders of the imperial court, was captured by the Jurchen in 1126. The rest of the Song court fled south, finally settling in Hángzhōu and establishing it as the capital of the Southern Song dynasty.
When the Mongols swept into China they established their court in Běijīng. Hángzhōu, however, retained its status as a prosperous commercial city. In 1861 the Taipings laid siege to the city and captured it, but two years later the imperial armies took it back. These campaigns reduced almost the entire city to ashes, led to the deaths of over half a million of its residents through disease, starvation and warfare, and finally ended Hángzhōu’s significance as a commercial and trading centre.
Few monuments survived the devastation, and most of those that did became victims of the Red Guards a century later during the Cultural Revolution. Much of what can be seen in Hángzhōu today is of fairly recent construction.